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House reverses course and says to tap budget reserves

House Budget Chairman Ray Sansom and House Speaker Marco Rubio said the House has agreed to give the governor authority to tap into half of the $1.3 billion reserve account, known as the Budget Stabilization Fund, and the Lawton Chiles Endowment reserve account if the money is needed to offset a budget deficit after the legislature leaves town in May. House leaders had vehemently opposed that approach in spite of the governor's repeated insistence that it is a smart way to approach the budget cuts.

The House stops short of using the money to offset what it said will be about a 10 percent reduction over last year's $72 billion budget, down to $65 billion this year. Instead, it will use the money only if there is yet another drop in revenues that forces the budget to be out of balance after lawmakers complete it in May.

Under the House plan, the governor would have to get approval of the Legislative Budget Commission to spend the money. Sansom said Rubio "made a decision over the weekend that "this is a time to do that" despite the House's repeated rejection of the Gov. Charlie Crist's suggestion to take the reserve funds to balance the budget in the face of a steep economic downturn.

The money in the budget stabilization account must be tapped only in an emergency and must be repaid in three budget years. Sansom said he believes the state's economic downturn can qualify as a emergency.

"We need to be in a position to react rapidly if conditions deteriorate rapidly,'' Rubio said, when it make take weeks to convene the Legislature. "We are in uncharted waters.''

"This is just a way to make sure the government continues to operate,'' Sansom explained.